The Nye-Ham debates, or why fundamentalism exists

Connor WoodScience Vs. Religion

Last week, Bill Nye and Ken Ham debated each other at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. I tried my best to ignore this. This decision was good for my mental health, but maybe not so good for my professional life. As the week went on, in fact, I started feeling just a little guilty. I’m doing a PhD in religion and science. I write a blog called, last I checked, “Science On Religion.” I should probably weigh in somehow about this creationist-evolutionist debate, right? I don’t want to. But I should. So here are a few thoughts about the modern religion-science media circus. You’re welcome.

The reason I didn’t get too excited about this religion-science hubbub in Kentucky was because I knew it would be, er, incredibly frustrating. Ken Ham is wrong. Pathetically so. I do not respect his beliefs (although if I met him personally I would try to respect the man). I don’t respect his beliefs because they are false beliefs, and demonstrably so. The people who think the world was created in six days six thousand years ago are Just. Plain. Wrong. That is not what happened. By hinging their beliefs in Jesus, their sense of meaning in life, and their connections with the past on this ludicrous cosmogonical error, creationists are doing more and deeper damage to the life of the spirit in this age than any Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett could ever do for them.

Meanwhile, however, the popularizing anti-Creationist crusaders are committing a similarly grave error by making a cartoon out of faith and working their damnedest to convince us that all religious people are dolts and buffoons – not by saying so outright, mind you, but by giving the most attention to the least-enlightened representatives of faith, by debating the Ken Hams of the world but not the Huston Smiths or the John Haughts. There’s a strategic reason they do this, though: since the 19th century, the religion-science divide has been encouraged by the popularizers of Science for the sake of their profession. What do I mean? Here’s what T.H. Huxley, a fierce advocate of evolution during Darwin’s era, had to say about religion:

Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.

Huxley, the grandfather of Aldous (the guy who wrote Brave New World, which you never finished in high school), was doing something clever when he said this. By pitting science against religion in the public’s eyes, by making it seem as if we had to choose one or the other, he was actually carving out a new space for professional Science as a stakeholder in the public arena.

You see, prior to his era, science was not an institution, nor was it even a profession. Science was a pastime for aristocrats and priests.

Yes – and priests. Before Huxley’s age, a lion’s share of the holders of seats in the British Association for the Advancement of Science – a professional advocacy group in England – were clergymen. Huxley and his friends knew that, if science was to become a profession on par with medicine and the law, there would have to be, um, professional positions for scientists to occupy. There would have to be seats in the Royal Society for the graduates of brand-new doctoral programs in physiology, biology, geology. How were they going to make space for  those seats? By getting the clergymen and amateurs to vacate them, of course. By pitting the new scientists against the old clerics.

And so the religion-science “battle” has always benefited the science as a profession, by helping to open up a power vacuum which scientists could conveniently rush in and occupy. This coup has succeeded; these days, scientists are now looked to as the de facto priests of our modern cosmology, telling us what the universe consists of, how it was created, and what it means. They have largely completed Huxley’s quest to drive religious leaders out of the captain’s chair of culture.

Now, this might not have been such a bad thing in itself.* But the big problem (well, biggest – there are a number of doozies) with the modern priesthood of the scientists is that their consensus answer to the biggest question – the one about meaning – has always been, “There is no meaning!” Here’s Richard Dawkins, for example, telling us in his famously droll way that the universe is void and meaningless:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

For very good reasons, most people simply cannot stomach this answer. Nor should they have to. The universe is a bizarre place. It’s so bizarre that it blew up out of nowhere, on its own. This exploded universe is largely comprised of particles called quarks – which have no physical dimensions and can apparently only exist when bundled together to form hadrons (particles such as protons and neutrons that help form atoms). The universe is so weird that no one knows what “energy” actually is, despite the fact that we know lots about how to use and measure it – and despite the fact that it makes up everything in the cosmos. Simply put, we mere human apes don’t know enough about the cosmos to argue conclusively that it’s “meaningless.” We don’t even know what its basic components actually are. It’s entirely possible that there is objective meaning behind its weirdness.

Of course, it doesn’t always look like it; there’s tons of suffering and randomness and misery in this bizarre universe, and our dreams don’t always come true, and autotune is a thing. So I think people like Dawkins are actually fairly justified in their nihilistic vision. But many other people do find the universe to be objectively meaningful, and for a great many folks life’s worth is predicated on this sense of meaningfulness.

What I’m trying to say is that scientists, in their role as society’s new priests, often tell religious and metaphysical stories that actively alienate a lot of people and are not scientifically justified. It is justifiable, scientifically, to say that the universe is 13.6 billion years old, or that humans evolved from proto-anthropoids. It is not justifiable, scientifically, to say that the universe is meaningless and there is no hope for an objective purpose to life.

This is only my opinion, and I’m sure many readers will disagree. But consider this: there was no fundamentalism in Christianity before the 19th century. Virtually no sociologists of religion will disagree that fundamentalist Christianity – exactly the kind of absurd, wacky nonsense Bill Nye was so valiantly crusading against last week in Kentucky, little bowtie and all – is in part actually a reactionary product of science’s overreach into spheres of meaning.

That’s right: science as a cultural force (not as a methodology) isn’t just fighting fundamentalism. It created it.

Now, Bill Nye doesn’t usually go around claiming that the universe is meaningless and religion is for fools. He’s actually much more reticent about such things than the other big-name science guys, which I commend him for. But by feeding the media frenzy around Ken Ham’s blundering fundamentalism, by publicly focusing the spotlight on Creationism without ever stopping to consider from a sociological or psychological perspective why there are creationists in the first place, he’s helping perpetuate the religion-science division in people’s minds. As I’ve expressed before, Darwinian evolution can make the world look like a very dark and unsettling place, and people are perfectly justified in feeling icky about it. Nye should get smart, and realize that pure facts are almost never enough to convince anyone. If you want to convince someone of something difficult, you need help them through the difficult parts, not gloss over them breezily.

In the meanwhile, though, Nye is unwittingly helping perpetuate a social reality wherein deeply religious people are trained to think of science as the enemy. If 150 years ago T.H. Huxley had chilled out and said, “Hey, look, I think science is neat, and I’m thinking we should fund it. Can we get some seats in this Society for some of my grad students? Thanks, Queen!” rather than waging a successful Machiavellian public-relations war that put religious people deeply on the defensive for generations, there’s a decent possibility that The Fundamentals would never have been written. Instead, now, today, like twisted versions of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, hegemonic science is still duking it out with its bastard son – fundamentalist religion. And Bill Nye and Ken Ham are both just footsoldiers. With bowties.

I think it’s important that this war come to an end. Like, soon. Because unlike Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Sam Harris or other Important Public Men of Science, I believe that the human need for meaning is much stronger than the human need for the National Science Foundation. If we keep pressing this sore spot, if we keep insisting as a culture that you can either have meaning or knowledge but not both, people will by and large choose meaning, and science will become nothing but a plaything of aristocrats once again. And then we will lose all hope of ever solving climate change, of coming to grips with evolution, of exploring space.

And I really, really want to explore space.

So are you one of those who thinks religion is stupid, and science is great? Wonderful. Keep it to yourself. Every single time you post a comment anywhere that perpetuates this war, any time you snark to a religious person about how science makes his or her worldview obsolete, you are bringing our culture one step closer to epistemological shutdown. And that means we all lose.

Or are you a religious person who believes evolution is wrong, and that the world is 6,000 years old? Stop. Seriously, stop. You’re making a fool of yourself, and you are making a fool of your God. So stop giving the T.H. Huxleys and Richard Dawkinses fodder for their ugly rhetorical cannons. I’m sorry, dinosaurs did not live at the same time as humans. The mountain of evidence against this claim is greater than Everest. Stop believing false things. And who wants such an insecure and brittle faith that the knowledge of mankind’s peripheral position in the great vastness of the cosmos shudders you? If your faith is strong, you can look down the barrel of 14 billion years and not blink. Be strong. Accept that the universe is more complex and strange and unexpected than can be written in a few verses of Genesis or Daniel.

Whew. See? This is why I didn’t want to write about Bill Nye and Ken Ham. But seriously, everyone: stop fighting this war. There are much, much more important ones to be fought. Thank you.

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Like what I have to say? Hate what I have to say? Get more perspective and read my friend and colleague Jonathan Morgan’s excellent take on the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debates and the culture wars at ExploringMyReligion.org.

* Plenty of religious Christians rue the day that the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, mixing up what had always been a countercultural movement with the power of the state. Perhaps religion is better counterposed against majority culture than used to prop it up.
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Correction: This post erroneously called the Royal Society the “Royal Academy” until I was notified of the error by a commenter.

Correction of the correction: Previously, this post erroneously claimed that the “lion’s share of seats” in the Royal Society belonged to clerics until Huxley’s time. This was flat-out wrong; I was remembering statistics on the British Association for the Advancement of Science, whose membership was fully 30% clergy in 1830 and a much smaller proportion by the late 19th century. Between its founding in 1830 and 1865, fully 41 Anglican clerics were chairs of sections in the British Association, while between 1865 and 1900 only three priests or clerics served as chairs. In a similarly striking statistic, nine Anglican clergymen served as president of the British Association prior to 1865; after that year, there were zero.

However, a similar trend did occur in the Royal Society, which had stricter standards for membership. Fully one out of ten members in the Society were clergymen in 1849, whereas by 1899 that proportion had dropped to 3%. As one historian puts it, “Banishment of clergymen from positions of influence in the scientific world and the abolishment of clerically dominated education were critical” to the goal of establishing professional positions for scientists as a new class.

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Want to learn more or challenge my interpretation of things? Here are some sources to check out:

• Frank Turner, “The Victorian Conflict between Religion and Science: A Professional Dimension,”  Isis 69:3, 1978

• Thomas Gieryn, “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists,” American Sociological Review 48:6, 1983

• John Hedley Brooke, “Science and Theology in the Enlightenment,” in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialog, eds. Mark Richardson & Wesley Wildman. New York: Routledge 1996.

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